Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, his fourth in two years, has produced evidence that the transfiguration of India’s ties with the world’s principal superpower that began in the late 1990s has now acquired a certain inexorable momentum. India has agreed on the language for the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, agreed on in principle in April, which will allow US troops to use Indian military bases — resisted, on principle, by the United Progressive Alliance for over a decade. In return, the US will grant India licence-free access to strategic technologies on terms similar to those of its closest allies. Nudged along by the US, Italy also dropped its objections to India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal club of 35 countries which work together to prevent the proliferation of missile and unmanned aerial vehicle technology capable of carrying a 500 kg payload for at least 300 km. MTCR membership, India hopes, will ease the acquisition of high-end technology for the space programme, as well as targetting equipment on military drones. Finally, there are hopes for progress on the nuclear deal signed in 2005, with Westinghouse beginning preliminary work on a six reactor deal.
There is little mystery as to why Modi has embraced the US with greater vigour than any of his predecessors, who were deeply suspicious of being held too closely to America’s bosom. For one, China’s unwillingness to accommodate India’s concerns on terrorism has fuelled cynicism in New Delhi on its intentions. Perhaps more important, there has been growing nervousness over Beijing’s nationalist muscle-flexing throughout its near-neighbourhood. Finally, the Modi government has come to see that India’s decayed military infrastructure simply cannot deter regional threats without a thoroughgoing programme of capacity-building, which in turn requires the acquisition of cutting-edge technology. For all of this, the government has concluded that the only credible option is to seek to be cocooned in the US-led system of alliances.
Like all clubs, though, membership comes at a price. As India’s foreign policy heads into uncharted waters, it’s important to debate what they might be. In the future, India could find itself more involved in security operations in West Asia, a region from which it draws much of its energy, but where the US has, until now, been the primary provider of order. India could conceivably be drawn, too, into crisis in the South China Sea — or face greater pressure from China along the borders in Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. China could step up support for Pakistan’s missile and nuclear programme, forcing India to make hard strategic choices. These scenarios may never come to pass — but it is important that Indians debate them in Parliament, and build durable consensus that cuts across political lines.